The evolving role of UX in agile product development, and what it means for today’s customers.

Applying UX in an agile project environment offers companies powerful new opportunities to optimize their products and customer experiences. However, business leaders are also encountering challenges with this hybrid model: in such a fast-paced and iterative setting, they risk rushing or overlooking the high-quality UX they need.

UX Designer Aaron Bowersock and UX Researcher Corrie Colombero are part of the Filter team that’s helping one of our clients, a leading telecommunications brand, ensure that in-depth user insights inform every step of the product development life cycle. In this interview, they share their thoughts on leveraging agile UX to its fullest potential.

Q: How is the increasing popularity of agile methodology impacting customer experience? In what ways is it beneficial, and in what ways can it complicate the UX process?

Aaron:

The main goal of agile UX is to get great design solutions generated quickly, led by initial user research and the goals defined by our stakeholders. We start a cycle of prototyping, testing, communicating and iterating. Working in this agile environment allows for dealing with new challenges quickly, while research helps us zero in on the best solution.

In terms of challenges, timing and communication can get tricky, and we aren’t aren’t always able to release the “perfect” design. Small concessions or compromises to the experience must be made; but the best thing is, we can always revisit things we miss! It’s built into the process.

Corrie:

This is a complicated question because everyone implements “agile” in their own way. Ideally, it offers continual UX involvement from beginning to end, and UX teams working in collaboration with all stakeholders involved. This allows for early research and design iterations with users, which helps impact UX for the better.

Agile strategy also presents challenges for UX and business processes. It can take more time at the beginning of the project to conduct research and iterate on designs. Often, a company wants to quickly create a solution and then test it later. However, building out designs before proper research is conducted leads to far more work later on.

Q: Do roles and collaboration look different in an agile setting, whether within the UX team or with others involved in the project?

Aaron:

It’s especially important to keep everyone on the same page in terms of product strategy, so we can continue building and iterating together. From a UX side, we start with our user stories, but all our work has to address the needs of the developers, designers and other stakeholders involved. By maintaining open communication and sharing as much knowledge as possible, we can design the best solutions for everyone.

Corrie:

When UX is properly embedded within agile projects, the focus is shifted to understanding the user first. Frequent feedback and check-ins by all stakeholders involved are imperative in keeping the project moving smoothly.

One benefit of this more fluid and collaborative style is that roadmaps aren’t just generated from the top down; ideas can come from any area of the company, as well as from users.

Q: Are there ways you need to adapt your usual UX processes and methods to fit the rapid pace of this model?

Aaron:

I use the same logic behind my decision making, but what’s great about agile is that we’re not designing in a vacuum. Our designs are informed by everyone from researchers to developers, and discussed among multiple teams.

Having the end user top of mind allows us to stay focused no matter how the project evolves. In every iteration we ask ourselves, “have we addressed the problem?” We design again, we research again and repeat the process until we are all happy with the product.

Corrie:

This depends on the nature of the model we are working in. Agile and UX processes differ for each product and company, but research methods are always adaptable to the situation at hand. For most agile teams, a successful approach involves ongoing user involvement, close collaboration among all team members, low and high fidelity iterations, testing and continued follow-up after deployment.

Q: Besides technical skills, what qualities do you think are most important in an agile UX team?

Aaron:

A UX researcher or designer in an agile environment has to be very open to constructive criticism and new information, while also ready to explain the reasoning behind their design decisions. Flexibility is extremely important; like any team involved in agile product development, we need to be able to jump into new challenges and revisit solutions we thought we had completed.

Corrie:

Because collaboration is such an important part of agile, the culture fit of the team is key. In addition to having the right tools and training, the people involved need to be curious, open-minded and willing to make compromises without losing focus on the user.

Q: How do you see the role of UX in agile product development evolving over the next several years? 

Aaron:

Across all industries, the pattern is now to release a basic but stable MVP, with increasingly frequent patches and enhancements. For long term projects, agile allows for quick turnaround, and for new features to be implemented more predictably and frequently.

The companies using this model don’t have to worry about releasing the ”perfect” product, because now we can keep releasing better and better iterations. If an agile UX team hits all our marks, it means a more fun and productive user experience, and it definitely means fewer calls to customer service.

Corrie:

Companies understand more than ever about the importance of good UX, as users are moving online to conduct a wider variety of everyday tasks. Constant iteration will help make sure that the user’s perspective is heard throughout the process, which will improve products and drive growth.

In the next few years, future-thinking organizations that have UX embedded in their processes from the beginning will easily stand out, even more so than they do now, among the rest.

For an even deeper dive into the evolving role of UX in agile product development, check out our Guide to UX Best Practices for for Agile, DevOps & Continuous Delivery

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